These Four Manuscripts Contain All of the Literature Written in Old English–and Beyond That, There’s Nothing More

Book his­to­ri­ans and rare man­u­script librar­i­ans do not have the most glam­orous jobs by the usu­al stan­dards. They deal with weath­ered, tat­tered, frag­men­tary scraps of text in archa­ic lan­guages and let­ter­ing. It’s work unlike­ly to receive the Hol­ly­wood (or Net­flix) treat­ment unless wiz­ards, witch­es, or occult detec­tives are involved. But the rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty of these pro­fes­sions does not make the work any less valu­able. With­out ded­i­cat­ed archivists and preser­va­tion­ists, a slow col­lec­tive amne­sia, or worse, can set in.

One might call this atti­tude pre­cious. Spe­cial­ists are use­ful, art is great, but with sophis­ti­cat­ed machine learn­ing, we can make, store, and print copies of every his­tor­i­cal arti­fact in the world, along with all of the accu­mu­lat­ed knowl­edge about them. What need to dote on crum­bling man­u­scripts? Why the spe­cial sta­tus of the orig­i­nal? The ques­tion, tak­en up by Wal­ter Ben­jamin in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion,” comes down in part to some­thing he called “aura.”

Take the case of four man­u­scripts, all of which recent­ly appeared togeth­er at the British Library’s exten­sive exhi­bi­tion Anglo-Sax­on King­doms: Art, Word, War: The Ver­cel­li Book, the Junius Man­u­script, the Exeter Book, and the Beowulf Man­u­script con­tain rid­dles, reli­gious texts, ele­gies, and the old­est man­u­script of the old­est known poem in Eng­lish. These rep­re­sent the sum total of extant orig­i­nal lit­er­ary man­u­scripts in Old Eng­lish, a tongue sev­er­al cen­turies dis­tant from our own but still embed­ded deep with­in the struc­ture of every mod­ern ver­sion of the lan­guage.

Each man­u­script has what, as Ben­jamin wrote, “even the most per­fect repro­duc­tion of a work of art is lack­ing… its pres­ence in time and space, its unique exis­tence at the place where it hap­pens to be.” Josephine Liv­ing­stone puts the mat­ter more plain­ly at The New Repub­lic.

Why are these four books so spe­cial? It has to do, I think, with the con­cept of the original—a con­cept we have almost entire­ly lost touch with. The Beowulf Man­u­script… is not mere­ly a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a sto­ry; it is the sto­ry…. The man­u­scripts con­front us with a for­mer ver­sion of our lit­er­ary selves; iden­ti­ties that we bare­ly rec­og­nize, and which estrange us from our­selves.

We can repro­duce his­to­ry infi­nite­ly, but the only way to expe­ri­ence the hum­bling oth­er­world­li­ness that dwarfs our cramped ideas about it is through its phys­i­cal remain­ders. Liv­ing­stone doesn’t clar­i­fy whom she includes in the phrase “our lit­er­ary selves,” but we might as well say, at min­i­mum, this means every speak­er of Eng­lish and every­one who has read Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture in trans­la­tion or felt the influ­ence of Eng­lish words and phras­es in oth­er lan­guages.

We acquire the lan­guage we hear and read from lit­er­ary sources, how­ev­er remote; they are con­sti­tu­tive, the threads that weave togeth­er cul­tur­al nar­ra­tives into a larg­er pat­tern. The orig­i­nal work of art, Ben­jamin argued, like the rel­ic, has reli­gious sig­nif­i­cance. And where the rel­ic grounds the cult, art grounds mate­r­i­al cul­ture in such a way, he thought, that it repels fas­cis­m’s aes­thet­ic obses­sion with destruc­tion.

Orig­i­nal arti­facts “must restore the instinc­tu­al pow­er of the human bod­i­ly sens­es,” lit­er­ary schol­ar Susan Buck-Morss elab­o­rates, “for the sake of humanity’s self-preser­va­tion.” The state­ment may sound less grandiose in the con­text of Europe in 1936, or we might con­sid­er it just as rel­e­vant today (and expand it to include not only art but nature).

We can rely on the fact that, should the Beowulf Man­u­script be destroyed, Liv­ing­stone grants, “the poem would still sur­vive,” as would the image of the man­u­script in very fine detail. That is “the hope con­tained in Benjamin’s dirge.” But what is lost can nev­er appear in the world again. You can view most of these rare texts—The Ver­cel­li Book, the Junius Man­u­script, and the Beowulf Manuscript—in high res­o­lu­tion scans at the British and Bodleian Libraries.

The texts are a minus­cule sam­pling of the num­ber of cul­tur­al arti­facts around the world wor­thy of preser­va­tion, and pub­lic­i­ty. And they are a tiny sam­pling of the lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion of Old Eng­lish. But on them rests a great deal of our under­stand­ing about the lin­guis­tic ances­tors of the lan­guage, with more to learn, per­haps, as scan­ning tech­nol­o­gy becomes even more advanced, illu­mi­nat­ing rather than replac­ing the orig­i­nal.

via The New Repub­lic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

1,000-Year-Old Man­u­script of Beowulf Dig­i­tized and Now Online

Europe’s Old­est Intact Book Was Pre­served and Found in the Cof­fin of a Saint

One of the Best Pre­served Ancient Man­u­scripts of The Ili­ad Is Now Dig­i­tized: See the “Bankes Homer” Man­u­script in High Res­o­lu­tion (Cir­ca 150 C.E.)

Wikipedia Leads Effort to Cre­ate a Dig­i­tal Archive of 20 Mil­lion Arti­facts Lost in the Brazil­ian Muse­um Fire

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Robert Stanton says:

    These four man­u­scripts “rep­re­sent the sum total of extant orig­i­nal lit­er­ary man­u­scripts in Old Eng­lish” only if we define “lit­er­ary” as “poet­ry” (and even then, there is poet­ry out­side these four books). Prose texts like Apol­lo­nius of Tyre, the Won­ders of the East, saints’ lives, the Anglo-Sax­on Chron­i­cle, and trans­la­tions of philo­soph­i­cal and the­o­log­i­cal works inhab­it­ed the same world as the poet­ic man­u­scripts, in the absence of a cat­e­go­ry of “lit­er­a­ture” as we would mark it today.

  • Evgeniya Lautt says:

    How did you fig­ure out what the text said?

  • Jorge Carrillo says:

    With all due respect, it is kind of delu­sion.

  • JB says:

    Yes, these 4 mss con­tain almost all of the *poet­ry* writ­ten in OE. There are many oth­er mss that con­tain OE prose on var­i­ous top­ics.

  • Jen L says:

    There are also oth­er man­u­scripts that con­tain Old Eng­lish poems, even. There are many mis­takes in this arti­cle that even a basic Wikipedia search could have pre­vent­ed.

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